Price paid: $ 1600
Purchased from: Direct
Features: The unit I'm reviewing is a 2009 CAE 3+SE preamp. It is a 2u rackmount all-tube preamp offering three separate channels plus a switchable global boost/EQ section. Each channel has gain and volume controls and a standard 3-band EQ and a bright switch.
Switching is accomplished by one of two means: either a custom foot Switch supplied by CAE (which costs extra) that attaches via a 5-pin XLR cable, or an external midi switching unit (like the custom CAE/Bradshaw ones) attached to a set of three standard 1/4" jacks in the back. You can use standard latching foot switches if you desire, but it's difficult to change between channels two and three if you do.
This is a professional until offering all the features one could want in a three channel preamp. I docked it one point since one way or another you're paying extra to get switching working right. // 9
Sound: I play semi-professionally in rock, country and jazz settings. I mostly use a Tom Anderson Pro Am with a H-S-S pickup config (Anderson pickups) and a Floyd Rose, but I also use Les Pauls, teles and a Gibson ES-137. For a power amp I've used a Soldano SM-100R, a Rivera Hamer 320, a VHT 2150 and the power section of a Budda Superdrive 80 head. I currently use the Rivera - it and the Soldano were the best sounding of the bunch, with the Budda deserving an honorable mention. I don't use a ton of effects, but a Neunaber WET reverb set to a fairly short tail and fairly dry mix is always on.
The noise floor is quite low given how much gain is on tap on channels 2 and 3.
I'll discuss each channel separately:
This is the clean channel, and it's CLEAN. You can get slightly pushed sounds if you want, but mostly it's a twin-in-a-box. I usually run this channel with the gain at about 10:00, bright Switch on, and all the EQ knobs slightly below half. It sounds great for country or rock cleans - very bright and spankey with no distortion. I turn the bright Switch off for jazz cleans. Channel 1 is fine with either single coils or humbuckers.
This is a high gain channel focusing on rhythm sounds. It can be used for leads if you want, but that's really what channel 3 is for. The natural sound of channel 2 is the "brown sound" - mid heavy, warm high gain metal rhythm - 1979 re-visited. It does this very well depending on pickup and power amp choice. You can probably EQ it for a more modern metal tone if you want, but I don't.
Channel 2 really likes humbuckers, but is only OK with single coils. If you back off the gain and guitar volume a bit to reduce the overall level of distortion, it does better with them and has kind of a Plexi vibe again depending on power amp.
Channel 3 is the "singing violin leads" channel. Not as much rhythmic thump as channel 2 (at least the way I EQ them) but it has this unique voice that I really dig for solos. Metalheads will want to EQ differently here and use this channel for the brutal distortion, but I typically achieve that via the EQ section (see below).
Depending on the power amp, I use this configured at unity gain with a scoop on the 2-band EQ to get a more modern metal sound out of channel 3. It works pretty well for that, and would also be a usable solo boost if you were playing both rhythm and leads on the same channel. It's hard to use without a switching unit though since you may need to step on two different buttons to move between your various tones.
The bottom line here is that all three channels do what they do as well as any amp I've ever heard, and I've owned (or at least played) nearly every high end amp ever made. This one's a winner when paired with a good power amp. // 10
Reliability & Durability: In terms of the amp itself, reliability has been 100%. I do bring a backup (a Crate power block, bleh...) to gigs because tubes can always fail, and it's impossible to change them without taking a set break. The overall construction of the unit is good, but I do have two concerns:
The first is that 12ax7 tubes sit in board-mounted sockets, and the circuit board flexes more than I would like when I insert and remove tubes. They really should use a stiffer board or some strategically placed mounting turrets to make it a little more solid.
The second problem is that this amp has had some tube failures. Of the original 7 Chinese rev 9 12ax7s that shipped with it, 3 of them died, all in the same position (I moved tubes around after they died), in the first two weeks I had it. I've since replaced the deceased tubes with more Chinese ones, and it's been fine for months so I'm probably out of the woods or just got a bad batch. Still, be aware... // 6
Overall Impression: The problem with this amp eating tubes has been a little annoying, but I still wouldn't build a rack setup around any other preamp right now. I guess a Soldano X-88 or X-99 would be a contender, but I'd still probably take the CAE. It's got the best cleans I've ever gotten out of any rig (including clean-only Fenders), and two gain sounds that cover exactly the territory I need for my gigs.
I've been playing at a professional level since the late 80s, and this is the best I've ever sounded. If someone stole it, I'd shoot them and hope they didn't bleed out into the CAE. // 9